The reason it hasn't been mentioned is because it's prayer. Every night we pray together. But prayer is a religious practice and we didn't want to exclude from our audience those who aren't religious. But it occurred to me that there's something meaningful and helpful in what we've been doing all these years that doesn't require religion.*
Every night as we get ready to sleep we'll reach out, hold hands, and say a short prayer. I start (mostly because that's the habit we fell into when we were first married), and Andrea will finish. We always begin with thanks for the day, recapping what happened, and sometimes remembering to share special events with each other. After we give thanks, we'll reflect on what's happening in our lives. We'll pray for friends and family in need, we'll ask for help with our own needs, or if things are going well, we'll be done.
Sometimes we're tired and the only words we can get out are a simple statement of gratitude for the day. Sometimes we're hurting and we can't quite be thankful for what the day brought us. Sometimes one of us will be unable to be grateful, so the other will take over. And sometimes we fall asleep before we can pray together or we're apart for the night and can't make a phone call.
But through all the years of our marriage we've made this nightly ritual a habit so that something feels off if we don't do it.
A recent study has shown that the practice of gratitude in a relationship can predict the happiness of that relationship. Gratitude for each day, even the crappy ones, even the ones where grief is overwhelming, even the ones where tears stain your eyes, helps to build a strong, healthy relationship.
Gratitude is the practice of being thankful. Sometimes that thanks is simply for having another day to live and breathe. Sometimes that thanks is for a great success, but other times the thanks is that the catastrophe didn't destroy us.
Every day we remind each other that there is something to be thankful for.
After gratitude, we reflect on what's happening in our lives. On the busiest of days when we've barely had a chance to talk, let alone share what we've been thinking and feeling, that moment of reflection might be all we get. As we're drifting off to sleep we'll share the joys and frustrations of the day, what's worrying us and what's making us giddy with anticipation.
Reflection helps us to reconnect and to reestablish that we're both heading in the same direction. It reminds us of what's most important and what's trivial. Sometimes the reflection goes on and on when we've had a lot of fantastic experiences. Other times the reflection is somber grief, but every time the reflection is of how we are working together.
As I said, you don't have to be religious to get the benefits of gratitude and reflection. What you do need to do is to speak the words aloud to each other. Simply tell your partner what you're grateful for and what you're focused on.
That's it. Just do that. Every day. I can't think of another practice in our relationship that has had a greater impact on its quality or our commitment. All of the other stuff that we do, that we've written about, has been in the context of gratitude and reflection.
Today I'm thankful for...
Today I'm focused on...
*While religion is deeply important to us, we follow the teaching of Christ that we should love our neighbors. To us, it doesn't feel very loving to withhold help or put conditions on caring for people. If you want to know more about our religious beliefs, please ask us and we'd be happy to share, but because we're trying to put those beliefs into practice, we're not going to force them on anyone.